Wildlife Viewing in the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum
Meeting some of the magnificent animals that are native to the Canadian prairies is as easy as taking a forty minute drive from Alberta’s capital city region. And even if you’re not visiting a nearby National Park, or walking in one of the more than three dozen wildlife retreats that can be reached in just a couple of hours by car, you can still have some memorable encounters simply motoring through picturesque countryside. Suddenly, you’ll see a deer bounding across a hayfield, or find yourself being watched by a curious owl on a fencepost…
Indeed, the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum offers many beautiful settings for viewing wildlife in its natural habitat. The 15,000 square kilometer heritage district falls entirely within the drainage basin of the North Saskatchewan River as it flows east from Edmonton, en route to Hudson Bay. The region encompasses not only Elk Island National Park and the Beaverhill Lake Natural Area, but myriad preserves, conservation areas, and other designated properties that provide refuge for an impressive array of fauna.
Situated on the Yellowhead Highway just 45 kilometers from downtown Edmonton, and also accessible from the north via the town of Lamont, Elk Island National Park was originally established in 1906 as Canada’s first federal sanctuary for large mammals. Today, this unique wilderness oasis provides a home to more than 1800 elk, or wapiti, which share the 194 square kilometre park with a host of other animals including moose and two varieties of deer (white-tailed and mule). In fact, Elk Island has the largest concentration of ungulates found anywhere on the continent, and its hoofed biomass is second only to that of the famed Serengeti plains of Africa.
Among the featured attractions at this aspen parkland preserve are the thriving herds of plains and wood bison, hunted almost to extinction a scant century ago. The biggest land mammal indigenous to North America, adult bison typically grow to a formidable 840 kilograms, and can often be seen grazing in clearings beside the Yellowhead Highway. Other, smaller animals that are more discrete in advertising their presence are coyotes, muskrats, beavers, and porcupines, whose movements may only by hinted at by tell-tale tracks, droppings, and subtle disturbances of the terrain.
Nor is Elk Island lacking in ornithological riches, serving as a nesting ground or stopping-off point for more than 230 species of birds. Especially prized residents are threatened trumpeter swans, whose small numbers are slowly recovering with the help of careful management and reintroduction programs. A large flock of white pelicans has also recently settled in the park, and is showing signs that it may develop into a permanent colony.
The similarly blessed Beaverhill Lake Natural Area is located southeast of Elk Island, near the modern farming community of Tofield. Less than an hour’s drive from Alberta’s legislative centre, it is most easily approached along Highway 14, which forms the southern border of the ecomuseum interpretive area. Notwithstanding cyclical fluctuations in its depth and shoreline, this expansive body of water is the largest lake in Kalyna Country. Becoming increasingly known among birdwatchers around the world, Beaverhill Lake and its adjacent marshlands provide an ideal haven for colourfully plumed migrants of all kinds.
In total, some 250 species of birds either reside at or visit the site while on their annual peregrinations across the Americas. A multitude of ducks and long-legged shorebirds frequent Beaverhill Lake on a regular basis, as do white pelicans, bald eagles, and several species of hawks.
At times, the sky comes alive with flocks of whirling fowl, and the air is filled with their cacaphonous din. But birdwatchers also cherish the quieter opportunities to see American avocets, marbled godwits, or yellow-headed blackbirds, and to hear the meadowlarks that haunt the sedge skirting this prairie jewel. The noisy arrival of the snow goose heralds the start of a new season, and is now celebrated each year with a two-day festival in late April. Of course, the spring and fall migrations bring successive waves of winged transients, as well as a procession of birders equipped with binoculars and cameras. Directions to the Beaverhill Lake Bird Observatory and other vantage points can be obtained in Tofield at the Beaverhill Lake Nature Centre and Museum, where visitors can enhance their outings by obtaining birding supplies, topical advice, and specialized literature.
Another close-by attraction perfectly suited for encountering animals is the North of Bruderheim Natural Area, a mere fifteen minute drive from Fort Saskatchewan. Its unique sand-dunes, created by former Lake Edmonton after the retreat of the last ice age, provide congenial surroundings for numerous birds and small mammals.
In addition to the above, there are a variety of other wildlife habitats scattered across the length and breadth of Kalyna Country. For those willing to venture slightly further afield (namely, 1-1/2 to 3 hours by car from Edmonton), two provincial parks and more than a dozen conservation areas and wildlife sanctuaries offer excellent viewing opportunities for both casual and committed nature-lovers. Currently in the process of being developed for ecotourism are the Whitford and Rush Lake wetland areas east of the town of Andrew – which has appropriately placed an imposing mallard on a permanent pedestal! Called Manawa or “Egg” lake in Cree, Whitford Lake was for centuries a favourite campsite of the aboriginal inhabitants of east central Alberta, and an important seasonal source of both food and decorative feathers.
Smoky Lake, Long Lake, Garner Lake, Goodfish Lake, Saddle Lake and Lac Bellevue, are other bodies of water found in Kalyna Country that encourage idyllic interactions between people and wildlife. Of special note is the White Earth Conservation Area east of the hamlet of Newbrook, where black bears and wolves can sometimes be spotted roaming the boreal forests that mark the northern fringes of Kalyna Country.
Of course, the North Saskatchewan River Valley is a magnet for creatures great and small because of its hospitable and nurturing environment. The many ravines that lead into it also bustle with wild animals, which flourish undisturbed by human industry or agriculture.
Four publically-owned grazing reserves round out the long list of Kalyna Country sites where it is possible to commune with wildlife in the great outdoors. These tracts of land unsuitable for cultivation are used to pasture cattle from late spring to early fall, when the hunting of deer and upland game birds is permitted on a limited basis. However, the partly cleared ranges provide a welcome home to an assortment of animals, as well as a recreational venue to hikers, snowmobilers, and cross-country skiers.
In short, whether you are a day-tripper on a Sunday drive, a cyclist, or a backpacker, you can easily be witness to nature’s furred and feathered bounty. In recent years the deer population of rural east central Alberta has burgeoned due to excellent breeding conditions, just as other species have prospered in the mix of farm- and woodland that is characteristic of the Kalyna Country landscape. Foxes, badgers, beavers, and coyotes; red-tailed hawks, magpies, ruddy ducks, and herons – all invite visitors to come to the land of the Kalyna, or highbush cranberry, in the guelder rose part of Wild Rose Country!
For more information contact:
Beaverhill Lake Nature Centre
c/o Box 30
Tofield, AB, T0B 4J0
Elk Island National Park
Site 4, RR1
Fort Saskatchewan, AB